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Cuba: the Havana Effect – photo essay by Tom Law and Catherine Hickey

Cuba: the Havana Effect, photo essay by Tom Law

Havana is alive and buzzing with an influx of tourists wanting to see it ‘before it all changes’. But the city is changing and you can feel it. ‘Cuba: the Havana effect’ sheds light on the situation outside of the capital and the extent to which these changes – best observed in Havana – are trickling down into the rest of the country.

Cuba has been preparing for tourism for many years and is now capitalising on a surge in visitors. Large numbers take city tours in American vintage cars; crowd outside the famous venues such as the restaurant-bar La Bodeguita del Medio listening to a live salsa band; and take photos of Old Havana’s colonial squares, so pristinely renovated, it feels like Italy; or a Cuban Disneyland.
They approach visitors in the streets enticing them to their privately-run restaurants or guesthouses (casas particulares); to take a ride in their vintage taxis; or to simply sell anything from the national newspaper Granma for 1 CUC (US$1) at 100 times the actual cost, fake cigars, or a caricature that an artist has quickly sketched whilst following them in the street.

Havana is also undergoing major construction and redevelopment works to support the tourism industry, and tourists walk amongst construction workers who are renovating the facades of colonial buildings; repaving Obispo, the main street in Old Havana; or erecting stone fountains in the squares. And foreign visitors bring in the latest mod cons, such as iPhones and iPads – theoretically impossible to buy in Cuba because of the US trade embargo – to take photos of the time warped city to send them to their friends and family via the invariably slow wi-fi connection in their hotels.

But what is it like outside of Havana? And who are the ordinary Cubans living the reality of these changes?

Cubans across the island, now able to start their own businesses since more opportunities for self-employment became legal in 2010, are taking advantage of the recent surge in tourism which has provided exciting opportunities. Cubans that work in the tourism industry have access to much higher salaries compared with that of a state worker. It is often clear who is benefitting from the tourism sector or self-employment: taxi drivers wearing gold jewellery, for example. It is also increasingly common to see Cubans taking a holiday by the beach or having a drink at a bar which charges prices in the tourist’s currency, the convertible peso, which is pegged to the dollar. This trend is no doubt set to continue.

Although the Cuban Government is planning to converge its two currencies in order to minimise these economic distortions, as Cuba opens up and the economy develops, there will be a rise of some form of middle class who have more disposable income. As earnings increase, consumerism will likely set in and Cubans will want more access to leisure and luxury goods that are currently not widely available in the country.

The recent surge in tourism and the ability to become self-employed has provided many Cubans with exciting opportunities. Cubans that work in the tourism industry have access to much higher salaries compared with that of a state worker. One room in a casa particular will make on average US$25-30 per night, equivalent to a month’s salary from the state. Now casas are popping up all over the place as demand from tourists soars – Airbnb sites Cuba as their largest growth market – and as Cubans become aware of the potential income they could make. Cubans who own their own car working as a private taxi driver and those that run private restaurants catering to tourists can earn similar amounts.

In parallel, the Cuban Government has made it possible for companies to pay their employees differentiated salaries to serve as incentives and this will become increasingly common.

It is often clear who is benefitting from the tourism sector or self-employment: taxi drivers wearing gold jewellery or hosts at casas with the latest air conditioning machines and new furniture, for example. It is also increasingly common to see Cubans taking a holiday by the beach or having a drink at a bar which charges prices in the tourist’s currency, the convertible peso, which is pegged to the dollar. This trend is no doubt set to continue.

Although the Cuban Government is planning to converge its two currencies in order to minimise these economic distortions, as Cuba opens up and the economy develops, there will be a rise of some form of middle class who have more disposable income. As earnings increase, consumerism will likely set in and Cubans will want more access to leisure and luxury goods that are currently not widely available in the country. Cuba is changing, but it is a hopeful future. (Tom Law)

Q&A with Tom Law

Photography is…
One of the simplest and most universal forms of expression. A way of telling a story and freezing a moment in time so we can view and reflect on the world in more ways than one.

Photography and writing…
Like cheese and red wine, they’re great on their own, but ten times better together.

Who left the biggest impression on you?
Jacob Holdt. I was fourteen and during the credits of Dogville, Holdt’s photos started to roll. I was mesmerised by how the harsh poverty was captured with such intimacy, it felt honest and real. Since then I’ve always prefered documentary photography. I believe you can really tell the difference in a portrait when you have the person’s trust.

Tell us a little about yourself
I grew up in the countryside of England and I feel most at home when walking in the forest with my dog. I started shooting only on film, and owe this to how I photograph now. It trained my eye and taught me the importance of getting each shot right. My favourite camera in my collection is the Hasselblad Xpan. Although it’s more of a landscape camera, it’s great for really cinematic portraits.

Photographer(s):

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